Covenant and Conversation – Priorities

Matot-Masei – 10th July 2010 – 28th Tammuz 5770

The Israelites are almost within sight of the promised land. They have waged a victorious campaign against the Midianites. We feel the tempo quicken. No longer are the Israelites in the desert. They are moving inexorably toward the Jordan, to the west of which lies their destination: the land ‘flowing with milk and honey’.

The members of the tribes of Reuben and Gad, though, begin to have different thoughts. Seeing that the land through which they are travelling is ideal for raising cattle, they decide that they would like to stay there, to the east of the Jordan. Moses is angry at the suggestion:
Moses said to the Gadites and Reubenites, “Shall your countrymen go to war while you sit here? Why do you discourage the Israelites from going over into the land the Lord has given them?

The tribes meet his objection with a compromise formula:
Then they came up to him and said, “We would like to build pens here for our livestock and cities for our women and children. But we are ready to arm ourselves and go ahead of the Israelites until we have brought them to their place. Meanwhile our women and children will live in fortified cities, for protection from the inhabitants of the land. We will not return to our homes until every Israelite has received his inheritance. We will not receive any inheritance with them on the other side of the Jordan, because our inheritance has come to us on the east side of the Jordan.”

We are willing, they tell Moses, to join the rest of the Israelites in the battles that lie ahead. Indeed we are willing to go on ahead, to be the advance guard, to be in the forefront of the battle. It is not that we are afraid of battle. Nor are we trying to evade our responsibilities toward our people as a whole. It is simply that we wish to raise cattle, and this land to the east of the Jordan is ideal. Warning them of the seriousness of their undertaking, Moses agrees. If they keep their word, they may settle east of the Jordan.

That is the story on the surface. But as so often in the Torah, there are subtexts as well as texts. One in particular was noticed by the sages, with their sensitivity to nuance and detail. Listen carefully to what the Reubenites and Gadites said:

Then they came up to him and said, “We would like to build pens here for our livestock and cities for our women and children.”
Moses replies:
“Build cities for your children, and pens for your flocks, but do what you have promised.”

The ordering of the nouns is crucial. The men of Reuben and Gad put property before people: they speak of their flocks first, their women and children second. Moses reverses the order, putting special emphasis on the children. As Rashi notes:
They paid more regard to their property than to their sons and daughters, because they mentioned their cattle before the children. Moses said to them: ‘Not so. Make the main thing primary and the subordinate thing secondary. First build cities for your children, and only then, folds for your flocks.’

The midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 22: 9) makes the same point through a dazzling interpretation of the line in Ecclesiastes:
The heart of the wise inclines to the right,
but the heart of the fool to the left. (Ecclesiastes 10:2)

The midrash identifies ‘right’ with Torah and life: “He brought the fire of a religion to them from his right hand (Deut. 33:2). ‘Left’ refers to worldly goods:
Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honour. (Proverbs 3: 16)

The men of Reuben and Gad put ‘riches and honour’ before faith and posterity. Moses hints to them that their priorities are wrong. The midrash continues:
The Holy One, blessed be He, said to them: “Seeing that you have shown greater love for your cattle than for human souls, by your life, there will be no blessing in it.”

One of the most consistent patterns of Jewish history is the way communities through the ages put children and their education first. Already in the first century Josephus was able to write: “The result of our thorough education in our laws, from the very dawn of intelligence, is that they are, as it were, engraved on our souls.” In twelfth century France a Christian scholar noted: “A Jew, however poor, if he has ten sons, will put them all to letters, not for gain as the Christians do, but for the understanding of G-d’s law – and not only his sons but his daughters too.”

In 1432, at the height of Christian persecution of Jews in Spain, a synod was convened at Valladolid to institute a system of taxation to fund Jewish education for all. In 1648, at the end of the Thirty Years’ War, the first thing Jewish communities in Europe did to re-establish Jewish life was to re-organise the educational system. In their classic study of the shtetl, the small townships of Eastern Europe, Zborowski and Herzog write this about the typical Jewish family:
The most important item in the family budget is the tuition fee that must be paid each term to the teacher of the younger boys’ school. Parents will bend in the sky to educate their son. The mother, who has charge of household accounts, will cut the family food costs to the limit if necessary, in order to pay for her sons schooling. If the worst comes to the worst, she will pawn her cherished pearls in order to pay for the school term. The boy must study, the boy must become a good Jew – for her the two are synonymous.

In 1849, when Samson Raphael Hirsch became rabbi in Frankfurt, he insisted that the community create a school before building a synagogue. After the Holocaust, the few surviving yeshivah heads and Hassidic leaders concentrated on encouraging their followers to have children and build schools.

It is hard to think of any other religion or civilization that is as child-centred as Judaism, nor any that has predicated its very existence on putting their education first. There have been Jewish communities in the past that were [cid:image002.png@01CB1DD0.291DC110] affluent and built magnificent synagogues – Alexandria in the first centuries of the Common Era is an example. Yet because they did not put children first, they contributed little to the Jewish story. They flourished briefly, then disappeared.

Moses’ implied rebuke to the tribes of Reuben and Gad is not a minor detail but a fundamental statement about Jewish priorities. Property is secondary, children primary.

Civilizations that value the young, stay young. Those that invest in the future, have a future. It is not what we own that gives us a share in eternity, but those to whom we give birth and the effort we make to ensure that they carry our belief and way of life into the next generation.

Marc Weinberg Z”L
Hashem Natan, Hashem Lekach, yehi shem Hashem mevorach. There are times when we have said all that can be said, when we have accepted in faith all that we can accept in faith, and yet we are left with a raw cry of pain. Ribono shel olam did it have to be like this? So young a man, so long a struggle, so short a life. And we are left holding on, as it were, to Hashem’s hand unable to stem the flood of tears.

Marc was a neshama tahora, such a pure soul. He loved Torah, he lived Torah, Torah was the very air he breathed. He loved people. He understood the meaning of vayar ki tov. He saw the good in people and brought out the best in people. He loved Eretz Yisrael. For him, his and Natalie’s Aliyah was something utterly ruchnit, spiritual not just physical. He would look out of the windows of his house and say, even in those last weeks, esa enay el heharim me’ayin yavo ezri.

He was such a loving son to Syma and Henry, such a loving husband to Natalie and such a loving father to Yona and Ma’ayan. He gave and he received so much love and that was the very texture of his life.

Whatever he did he was a leader. Whether in Jewish student life in Britain or as mazkir to Bnei Akiva or as one of the inspirations of the revival of the London School of Jewish Studies, whether as a founder of the first dati zioni minyan in London, Alei Tzion, whether as the leader of a group of British olim or as leader of the project that occupied his last years and now will surely be his living memorial a new bet Knesset here in Modiin. Whatever Marc did, he led.

Vayifen ko vakho vayzar ki ein ish. If he saw something was lacking or something was wrong he would not complain. He would not wait for others to act. He would say, Let me be among the first to put things right, and he brought others with him. They were inspired by his vision, his faith, his moral courage, his passion and compassion. They were drawn to him and he drew out the best in them. He made you feel the world could be a better place.

And when two and a half years ago this devastating illness struck, he fought long and hard beyond all normal limits of courage and strength until finally for all his resilience of spirit, his body could hold out no longer.

It was a terrible struggle not just for Marc, but those who loved him and were so close to him. For Natalie , Yona and Ma’ayan, for Syma and Henry, and for Yudit and Jonny and the Weil family, Syma’s mother Hettie, and Henry’s mother Sadie, and his very very wide circle of friends here in Israel and in Britain – there were thousands, thousands who kept in touch. I never knew somebody who had so many admirers and friends and they include our own children, who were utterly devastated by the news.

The truth is that wherever he went in his life he created an ever widening circle of influence. He was one of those people not only good in themselves, but a source of goodness in others. They followed Marc’s illness day by day They davened for him every single day. And they like us are today bereaved and bereft.

Yet in all of this there is a strange kind of comfort. It is signalled in a strange passage in B’haalotcha. The people are complaining as usual, and for once in his life Moshe Rabbenu lacks the strength to carry on. It is a crisis in his life like no other.

And Hakodesh Boruch Hu says, Gather 70 elders ve-atzalti min haruach asher alecha vesamti alehem, “and I will take of the spirit which is on you and will place it on them.” This is a very odd thing. What were the 70 elders supposed to do? Moshe Rabbenu had other leaders and an established system of delegation in place. The 70 elders they could not help him out of the specific crisis of finding meat for the people in the midst of the midbar. In fact we don’t find they did anything at all.

Yet that moment marked a change in Moshe Rabbenu’s life. From a man who was suffering breakdown and spiritual crisis, immediately thereafter, when he faces a new crisis — Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp and Joshua says, “My master, Moses, shut them up”, Moshe says, “Are you anxious on my behalf? Would that all God’s people were prophets.”

When his own brother and sister turned against him, the text says “Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than any man on earth.” He faces both crises with calm and generosity of spirit. We see, in short, a man transformed from agonising spiritual crisis to peace of mind and serenity. Something had happened to change Moshe Rabbenu’s life and the lives of those around him. What was it?

I believe it was the simple fact that ve-atzalti min haruach asher alekha. It was that Moshe Rabbenu was given a glimpse — and it is very rare for anyone to be given such a glimpse — of the influence he had on those around him. He saw how his spirit rested on them, he saw how they were able to see through his eyes, hear through his ears, be lifted to the heights by his spirit. That was enough. And though he never ceased to struggle, thereafter he could live content, knowing that others were different because of him. Perhaps that is as much of a reward as any of us have this side of heaven.

In the last years of his life Marc was given that rare gift. He saw, he heard, he knew, he felt, just how many hundreds and thousands of people were different because of him. And though he never ceased to struggle, somehow at the deepest level of his spirit he was able to live content and die content.

Hashem natan, Hashem lakach, yehi shem Hashem mevorach. God lent us Marc for all too short a time, but in that time he lived a life of such vision and responsibility that it became indelible.

He received and gave so much love to Natalie and his children, to Syma and Henry, and Debra and Aviad and everyone around him that we know in our bones that kasheh kamavet ahavah, or as the poet Dylan Thomas paraphrased those words:

Though lovers are lost
Love is not
And death shall have no dominion

And now Hakodesh Boruch Hu is holding Marc in his zero’ot olam, His everlasting arms, ve-atzalti min haruach, and He has left us with his spirit and his memory and those we will never lose and never cease to thank God for, even in the midst of our tears and our grief.

May Hashem comfort his beloved family and friends.
May He give strength to Natalie.
May He bless and look after Yona and Ma’ayan and be with them every inch of the way.
May Marc live on in them and in us, and may his soul be bound in the bonds of everlasting life.
Tehi nishmato tserurah bitsror hachayim.

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